A 250-hour long Role Playing Game (RPG) came to Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017. Daniel Perks caught up with co-producer Chris Hislop to discuss Adventurers Wanted:

How do you maximise an audience’s engagement with a production? How do you ensure that they become emotionally invested in your narrative? If any theatre maker can find a formula for these two quandaries, then they will likely have a guaranteed success on their hands. Interactive theatre aims to engage a crowd by involving them (to varying degrees) in the development of the story, for a short period of time at least. So perhaps a Role-Playing Game (RPG) styled theatre production like Adventurers Wanted, with a longform involvement, is the next logical step. Maybe this will give the audience the power to decide, create and own their own narrative.

At this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, producer and independent PR guru Chris Hislop teamed up with theatre director and writer Chloe Mashiter and a host of other passionate Games Masters (GMs) in a 250-hour RPG epic. Adventurers Wanted brought live storytelling into a theatre setting, where audiences could either observe or participate in carefully crafted scenario where structured fantasy collides with improvised dialogue.

For those like me who are new to the world of RPG, the team put together a helpful explanation via their website. They also filmed each hour of the adventure – viewers could catch up with any plot developments or twists via the YouTube channel. But sitting through my first experience of live RPG, it’s like trying to decipher another language – naturally, since the players had a bond forged over hundreds of hours that oozes with emotion and evocative imagination.

I caught up with Chris after hour 245 of 250 in the marathon Adventurers Wanted to see how their most ambitious production ever had gone:

How has your overall experience both writing and producing Adventurers Wanted been?

Chris: It’s an interesting writing exercise with RPGs. It’s not scripted – you have to anticipate what might happen in every scenario and prepare an answer for the unasked questions. The trick to writing a good RPG is in making some of those decisions meet up again without it feeling unnatural – the decisions impact the way in which what happens next comes together. We have to make sure there is a cohesive plot.

It’s a balancing act between giving agency to both players and writers. Players are always more ingenious than you give them credit for and inevitably make decisions that benefit the overall story.

 

How much of the script or the respective roles do the players get given beforehand? 

Chris: Nothing. There is a pack for players to read but that doesn’t specify anything about the creative content – it’s more practical information, a few rules that anyone coming straight into the game can pick up and use to grasp the overall RPG concept.

We planned to always have two regular players and two ticketed. There are seven of us on the core team, with about 15 people who have come in voluntarily as regulars too. Having these means that in each hour there is some sort of story progression – it’s easier for the GM to keep control. 

Artwork courtesy of O.A. Rachvaeri

Adventurers Wanted feels in many ways like an epic opera – the GM provides the necessary recitative to move the story forward based on the decisions that each performer has made. The skeleton plot is laid out, but each aria or monologue will add a different emotional twist to the overall atmosphere

Chris: The GM portrays the setting. They have to find a way to progress the overall narrative without anyone losing their own personal story – they provide a believable world. A good GM is part referee, part enabler. They find a way of fitting everything together in a visual landscape – there is no set or props, so all you have is the description.

You have to see the players as catalysts.

There is such investment in the characters from each of the four players that I watch, a concrete narrative so engrained in their mentality that it seems the most natural thing in the world for each one to slip back and forth between themselves and their corresponding, parallel world, individual.

What is the difference in experience between being a GM and playing a character?

Chris: As a player, you get to revel in a fantasy world someone else has written, you get to live through things you haven’t lived through and experience things that aren’t possible in reality.

As a GM, you create a reality that everyone joins in on – you’re in complete control. You write long-winded detailed narratives with sub-plots and arcs that may never come to fruition. It’s a writer’s wet dream; you can write as much or as little as you want, knowing that much of it may never happen. You feel like you’re writing an intense novel that everyone else controls.

Image courtesy of Chrystal Ding

The pace and pause in Adventurers Wanted is inherently organic because it’s in many ways improvised, every person reacting to the events conjured forth by the other and attempting to add their piece to a complex, colourful visual jigsaw. Or perhaps these are threads in a tapestry, woven without any prior knowledge of how the finished product will look other than it will be a colourful piece of art. But will this work from a live audience perspective? Will an audience ultimately want to watch the artwork be created, or simply want to engage with the finished product?

Chris: That’s been fascinating from this perspective – I’ve never run a live RPG like this, one where there is an audience. Making sure Adventurers Wanted is comprehensible for a room full of people, where you can’t know their level of engagement, understanding or knowledge of RPG, is an area we’re going to expand on.

We’ve had a couple of super fans who have been with us all the way through – they’ve seen a lot, played a lot themselves and even caught up online. Getting through to people who have never experienced RPGs before has been an interesting challenge. Some sit there for an hour, have a great time and then leave to not come back. They wanted it as an experience. Some come in for about ten minutes, look at what’s going on and can’t figure it out at all. That’s understandable – you’re mainly watching five people talk and roll some dice.

Artwork courtesy of O.A. Rachvaeri

But there is a theatricality to Adventurers Wanted and that’s a big interest to my co-producer Chloe and myself. Personally, I have experienced more emotionally engaging moments in role-playing than I have in theatre this year. There’s something about inhabiting a character yourself, reacting to a moment and making a decision with huge consequences that is incredibly engaging.

How do we get that communicated to an audience better? There may be two arms to this production going forward – one version as a table top RPG where interactivity between players is key, then another version that takes out some of the gaming elements and has the production more focussed on roleplay. In the latter, there are dice rolls and people at a table, but then they get up and act out scenes, or they move around the room to bring out more of a performance style.

We’ve now been offered various opportunities to do it in other places – the idea is to enhance the audience experience and then bring it back to Edinburgh next year with more people willing to join in as players.

I want people to walk away from the game feeling empowered and wanting to do this again – that’s what Adventurers Wanted is all about achieving.

 

What originally got you into RPG?

Chris: When I first started playing as a 15-year old, I was interested in fantasy books and saw this as an interactive way of participating. But there wasn’t a lot of scope in an international school in Germany to actually engage with this. There was a stigma.

Nowadays Wizards of the Coast, one of the bigger companies that run Dungeons & Dragons, have done a lot of work to enhance the accessibility of the game. The rules have been simplified and you no longer have to use them as written – you can play in that way, but you can also play Rules as Intended instead of Rules as Written. The intention is to speed up the adventure, spend more time engaging with other players and less time rolling dice. RPG is probably currently half and half.

 

The nature of an RPG is that the fun is in the journey more so than the conclusion.

Chris: We have run a 250-hour complete campaign that is now ending. So, you have audiences coming into Adventurers Wanted part way through that are almost party to an episode in the middle of a TV series. Some TV shows can be very formulaic – this isn’t at all.

There’s no one answer – as far as I know it’s pretty much unprecedented. It’s all an experiment to see what works.

 

To read more about Adventurers Wanted, which played Sweet Venues at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017, follow the company on Twitter (@adventurers250) or visit the website – adventurers250.wordpress.com